May 2008

Blue Note Records: Hip-Hop-Hard-Bop

Just as today’s jazzers often yearn for their music’s halcyon years—whether it’s ’30s swing, ’40s bebop or ’50s hard-bop—hip-hop has its own generation gaps, with many aging B-Boys longing for what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age (1987 to 1995). It was during this era that Blue Note Records wielded its strongest influence on rap. The label’s new compilation, Droppin’ Science: Greatest Samples From the Blue Note Lab, serves, in part, as a love letter to that particular time, when Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, Pete Rock and A Tribe Called Quest reigned supreme.

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Francis Wolff

Grant Green

Droppin’ Science is a 10-song (13 if you get the vinyl edition) treasure chest that arrives on the heels of other noteworthy Blue Note nods to DJ culture like 2005’s Mizell, 2004’s Blue Note Revisited and avant-hip-hopper Madlib’s 2003 document Shades of Blue. If you’re both a hardcore jazz and hip-hop fan, you’ll recognize that those are just a few of the many Blue Note’s hip-hop-centric compilations circulating worldwide (especially in Europe and Japan). In addition to the phenomenal early-’90s success of Us3, British producer Eddie Philler’s four-disc Blue Break Beats series is the label’s most cherished shout out to hip-hop.

Blue Note’s A&R director and Droppin’ Science’s producer, Eli Wolf, acknowledges the similarities between it and the Blue Break Beats, but sees his compilation as giving the Blue Break Beats a “facelift.” “I can’t say that [Droppin’ Science] is a wholly original idea,” he says. “There are a few tracks that overlap but Droppin’ Science is really coming from my perspective.” Wolf also notes that Blue Break Beats displayed more of a European perspective, while Droppin’ Science exudes more of an American, notably New York City, hip-hop vibe.

Wolf says that he looked at finding some of the greatest songs in hip-hop history as the main criteria in producing Droppin’ Science, especially the stuff by the Native Tongues Posse (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers, among others). “Blue Note is also associated with other hip-hop heroes such as Large Professor, Lord Finesse and Pete Rock,” Wolf explains.

“The group that really put the Blue Note ideology in the hip-hop context was A Tribe Called Quest,” adds drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots, who wrote Droppin’ Science’s liner notes. “Tribe managed to demonstrate ways to use some of the Blue Note classics that weren’t so much jazz-funk. They were taking [music] from more traditional jazz artists like Bobby Hutcherson that perhaps other hip-hop cats would overlook.”

Although he cites DJ Jazzy Jeff’s 1987 track “A Touch of Jazz” as the first hip-hop song to fully utilize jazz as a sonic anchor, Thompson credits A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal 1991 album, The Low End Theory, as opening the jazz floodgates. “Blue Note became common-knowledge among many DJs, crate-diggers and record connoisseurs,” Thompson recalls.

A Tribe Called Quest’s eminence looms large on Droppin’ Science, which features Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew,” Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice,” Jack McDuff’s “Oblighetto,” Grant Green’s “Down Here on the Ground” and Lonnie Smith’s “Spinnin’ Wheel,” all of which provided sample fodder for “Electric Relaxation,” “Scenario” and “Vibes and Stuff,” among other tracks. Those jazz tunes, as well some by Joe Williams, Lou Donaldson, Jeremy Steig and David McCallum, round out Droppin’ Science.

Indeed, hip-hop’s golden era bristled with sonic innovation and optimism in terms of rap’s potential of cultivating a younger jazz audience. And for a moment in the early-to-mid-1990s, it seemed plausible. With the rise of jazz-rap music came Paul Bradshaw’s influential U.K. magazine, Straight No Chaser, the prominence of music impresario Gilles Peterson and the emergence of significant jazz-informed labels such as Ubiquity and Talkin’ Loud, all which coincided with the second wave of neo-bop Young Lions, M-Base and a natty new style of urban fashion. Reid Miles’ iconic artwork for Blue Note also inspired a host of hip-hop graphic artists in terms of creating record jackets, posters and event flyers. In short, jazz-rap became a global movement.

But soon gangsta rap and, later, the Dirty South and glitzy hip-pop sidetracked jazz-rap, submerging latter-day jazz-centric practitioners such as J Dilla, SA-RA Creative Partners and Georgia Anne Muldrow underground. Also, with the record industry making it increasingly expensive to sample music, hip-hop producers began crafting and selling their own beats.

Wolf wants to reignite younger hip-hoppers’ interests in jazz with Droppin’ Science. So does Thompson, but he recognizes its hurdles, considering hip-hop’s foundation in youth culture and oft-fickle obsession with the now. “One thing that absolutely confuses me about black people is the utter disposability of music history juxtaposed by our sheer musical brilliance,” he says. “That’s one of my biggest regrets with the hip-hop community—the absolute disposal method to which we treat music.”

Still, Thompson’s hopeful in Droppin’ Science’s potential to both educate and entertain. “It takes patience, because ADD culture is going at a faster rate. I’ve sat with hostages of Clear Channel; it’s very easy for people to forget the past,” he says. “Droppin’ Science is necessary because of the times that we live in.”

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